Every year, on my father’s birthday, my mother would take some time off (a hard prospect as a physician at a busy hospital), seal off the kitchen from children and golden retrievers, and work tirelessly to create the most delicious baked confection of all time. We call it “the cake that makes us cry”.
It is a genoise with butter cream frosting and an almond praline brittle crumbled on top. If done correctly, it causes involuntary sobbing due to the undeniably rich flavor and unreal texture.
If done incorrectly, it also causes involuntary sobbing, but not as a function of the taste. For each successful attempt, there are roughly 7 failed endeavors.
The recipe is in The New York Times Cookbook, authored by Craig Claiborne - one of the greatest cookbooks of all time. Despite what I am sure were Claiborne’s best attempts, the recipe is a complete failure.
Any combination of the following generally leads to bent over weeping:
1) The eggs do not beat up enough, resulting in a chewy, flat cake.
2) The sugar doesn’t dissolve and the crumb of the cake becomes grainy.
3) The addition of the dry ingredients causes the batter to completely deflate.
4) The frosting breaks as you add the butter.
5) The carmel for the praline boils and you end up with a granulated mess.
So I looked around. I talked to my aunt, a chef, who admits to harboring equal resentment for the recipe - for the simple reason that it does not work. I consulted my favorite food scientist, Harold McGee, but “On Food and Cooking” did not mention the Genoise as far as I can tell.
My next step was to consult the great French chefs that I know and love. First, was Julia. Her recipe included something I had not yet seen - heating the eggs and sugar until dissolved in a pan (using the stand-mixer’s bowl as the top of a double boiler). I had always been told that room-temeperature eggs were essential to ensuring inflation, but this was taking it a step further. Several years ago, on Christmas eve, after failing to get anything edible from the NYTimes recipe, we tried it. It was better, not perfect.
So I went back.
Among French chefs, after Julia, I think of Jacques Pepin. So I looked at his. It was mostly, if not entirely, the same as Julia’s. The one difference was a small footnote in the recipe that suggested (or rather, demanded) the use of fresh eggs. We tried it. Perfection.
This, I could explain using the wisdom of Harold McGee. Apparently, as a function of the osmotic pressures in the yolk and whites, water flows from the white to the yolk at a rate of 5 mg of water every day. In fresh eggs, therefore, the water content of the yolk is much lower, and therefore the flavor and proteins are much more concentrated.
So we figured it out, maybe 25 years after the problem presented itself. Although at risk of insulting Craig Claiborne’s memory, I feel as though I do have to say one thing.
I hate nothing more than a recipe that doesn’t work.
People have a hard enough time cooking. It is intimidating, hard to find the time for, and can be expensive. To waste people’s time by not testing published recipes for accuracy and ease of execution is simply not fair. My mother, a one-time accomplished baker who could whip up a pound cake with here eyes closed and two arms tied behind her back, is now terrified of the kitchen. I blame the “cake that makes us cry.”
Buying a cookbook is a sign of trust. You purchase it because you have faith that the writer has done everything in their power to make sure you will come up with a delicious product.
So please, cookbook authors, don’t let us down! Test your recipes!
WOMGANLC (Working on my genoise and no longer crying),
-Pete and the entire Moulton family